On April 1, 2015, a lawsuit was filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against Johns Hopkins University, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Bristol-Myers Squibb for their alleged part in U.S. government studies conducted in the 1940s in Guatemala that allegedly involved infecting hundreds of people with sexually transmitted diseases (syphilis, gonorrhea, and other STDs).
The plaintiffs are nearly 800 Guatemalans who were part of the research study along with their family members, including the estates and the families of 124 Guatemalans who died allegedly from complications of the STDs they suffered as a result of their participation in the study.
The Guatemala study was undertaken from 1946 to 1948 and included prison inmates, orphans, children who attended state-run schools, and people who had psychological problems. Some of the participants (but not the children) were deliberately infected with syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid. When some of the study participants who had sexual intercourse with prostitutes who were infected with the diseases did not become infected themselves, they were intentionally exposed to the diseases through wounds on their faces and penises.
Johns Hopkins University did not initiate, pay for, direct, or conduct the research studies but the recently filed lawsuit alleges that physicians associated with Johns Hopkins University had highly-placed roles on the panels that reviewed federal spending involving sexually transmitted disease research studies, including those that took place in Guatemala (a Johns Hopkins University physician reportedly was the chairman of an 11-member review panel of the National Research Council that was responsible for reviewing the design of the studies and approving the studies for federal funding; additionally, it has been reported that three other individuals associated with Johns Hopkins University were on the review panel in 1946 when the panel reviewed the Guatemala study proposal).
A statement issued by a spokesperson for Johns Hopkins University stated, “For more than half a century since the time of the Guatemala study, scholars, ethicists and clinicians have worked with government officials to establish rigorous ethical standards for human research. Johns Hopkins welcomes bioethical inquiry into the U.S. Government’s Guatemala study and its legacy. This lawsuit, however, is an attempt by plaintiffs’ counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain.”
Other representatives of John Hopkins stated in a letter, “The plaintiffs’ essential claim in this case is that prominent Johns Hopkins faculty members’ participation on a government committee that reviewed funding applications was tantamount to conducting the research itself and that therefore Johns Hopkins should be held liable. Neither assertion is true.”
Regarding why the lawsuit was filed, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers stated, “This is about accountability and responsibility.”
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